The surprising advantage Democrats gained during the torturous process of rewriting the country’s congressional maps could be short-lived, creating the potential for more frequent clashes over how political power should be distributed in the United States. .
As the decade-long scramble to draw new legislative lines, a process known as redistricting, comes to an end, Democrats have successfully shifted the map of Congress to the left. The typical U.S. House quarter is now close to matching President Biden’s 2020 4 percentage point win. Although the effect may not be visible in this year’s vote, as Democrats face growing odds of retaining their majority in the House, party leaders believe the new maps would make it easier to capture the chamber in a more favorable election.
But all that could change.
Two major states – North Carolina and Ohio – are already set to redraw their maps in the next few years. Meanwhile, several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court could dramatically change the rules that govern mapping nationwide. These twists could ultimately turn the redistricting into a regular political brawl that consumes state capitals already plagued by partisan tensions.
“It’s the end of Act I, but there’s a lot more to come in the play,” said Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice, which is following the recut.
The uncertainty extends to other facets of elections, from the ability to challenge certain voting restrictions in court to whether minorities may stand a chance of electing their preferred representatives. But it also leaves a significant asterisk on one of the biggest political twists in recent years.
Many Democrats began the redistricting cycle haunted by what happened after the Republican wave in 2010. The following year, after the US Census Bureau released its new population count, the GOP had control of the development of new legislative lines in a large number of states, shifting the map of the national congress to the right. Democrats feared the same thing could happen in 2021, after the demographic update every ten years.
Republicans, however, had maximized their gains in many places and turned to bolstering incumbents rather than trying to make new seats winnable. Democrats still had far fewer districts to draw than the GOP, but controlled more states than in 2011. In those they controlled, Democrats drew aggressive maps to maximize the number of seats they could win .
Republicans and many analysts note that in doing so, Democrats have effectively spread their voters, making themselves vulnerable to shifting political coalitions or bad election cycles, as 2022 should be for the party. Still, Democrats say they are satisfied. They have 12 congressional seats that they have moved into the “likely Democratic” category – although that includes some districts that Democrats already represent.
Republicans also say they are satisfied with what they have done. Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said the party has so far moved 16 GOP-held seats in competitive districts to safe Republicans. This, he argues, will free up millions of dollars to sue vulnerable Democrats.
“We are exactly in most states where we thought we would be,” Kincaid said. The biggest surprise, he added, is that “the Democrats, where they had control, went wild.”
There are a few significant wildcards left, with five states lacking official maps.
Florida has not finalized its map, stuck in a standoff between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-controlled legislature over how to aggressively extend their party’s hold on the state’s congressional delegation. Ohio’s maps are in limbo as the state’s Supreme Court repeatedly strikes them down as illegal, pro-GOP gerrymanders, or distorted maps drawn to help one side rather than represent communities.
The GOP is furious with court intervention in places like Ohio that has helped Democrats, and it’s one reason there could be a decade-long redistricting cycle.
Complex redistricting disputes often drag on for years, sometimes leading courts to order new maps. In the past decade, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas have all had GOP-drawn maps thrown out of court and new ones commissioned. But legal experts say this cycle could become even more tumultuous and far-reaching.
That’s because the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled its interest in changing some longstanding norms that governed redistricting.
“Their holdings can impact all 50 states in ways that the holdings in 2011 did not,” Doug Spencer, a law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said of the high court.
The first case the Supreme Court took up was a challenge to maps drawn by Republicans in Alabama last month. A lower court panel cited the Voting Rights Act to rule that the GOP should create a second district with enough Democratic-leaning black voters to be able to choose their own representatives without being blocked by whites voting for the other party. The High Court’s Tory Majority suspended the ruling, saying it could revise its long-standing rules for dealing with majority-minority districts next year.
Then, last week, the court dismissed a GOP appeal against rulings by state supreme courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania that adopted maps Republicans did not like. But four conservative justices – the minimum number required to hear a case – said they wanted to comment on the legal theory underlying the challenges, which says state legislatures have supreme power to make rules for elections. in Congress.
There’s a wide range of ways the High Court could decide both cases, but that’s already adding uncertainty to a combustible, hyper-partisan environment that could lead to North Carolina and Ohio redrawing their maps later. this decade, representing 29 seats in the House. The volatile nature of the debate in the two states is due to disputes over maps drawn by Republicans.
In North Carolina, after a Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court struck down GOP maps in a 4-3 vote, Republicans vowed to return the court to their control in November. Indeed, when a lower court panel drafted a new map for the November election that was more egalitarian than one that would have given Republicans 10 of the state’s 13 seats, the justices called it a “temp worker”.
In Ohio, the state High Court’s term-limited GOP chief justice joined Democrats in becoming the deciding vote to strike down repeated GOP cards as illegal gerrymanders. As in North Carolina, the GOP has vowed revenge at the polls, with its leading candidate to replace the chief justice pledging to endorse maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature.
“We can change these courts,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, co-chair of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said in a call with reporters this month. “The game is far from over in North Carolina and Ohio.”
Experts fear the partisan battles could spread further than these two states. Redistricting mid-decade is rare, but it does happen — Republicans in Georgia changed their state legislative maps in 2017. In 2003, after Republicans in Texas took power, they changed the maps of that state. state for the benefit of the GOP. But with partisan polarization and mistrust higher than in decades, the incentive to strip a few more seats from an improved political or legal position is strong.
Spencer cited Pennsylvania, where the GOP-controlled legislature was blocked by the Democratic governor sending the map drawing to the courts. But if Republicans win the gubernatorial race there in November, they could be encouraged to try new sets of the map that are far more GOP-leaning than those endorsed by the state Supreme Court.
If coalitions shift — say, Latino voters continue to lean toward the GOP, or Democrats make new inroads in the suburbs — the mid-decade redistricting allows lawmakers to adjust the lines to defend their districts.
“The country’s political volatility should not be underestimated and people might adapt to that, and the cards might change in a number of states,” Li said.